Adventures In Audio
How to record an unaccompanied choir

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Tuesday May 9, 2006
FREE EBOOK DOWNLOAD ►

'A cappella' means 'in the church style', or unaccompanied. Many popular songs have a cappella sections, particularly in the break downs at the end of the track.

But also, there is a surprising amount of choral singing going on all over the world. It is an incredibly popular thing to do, inside and outside of churches. If there isn't a choir in your home town you must live in a musical desert.

Of course, where music is made there is music to be recorded - for pleasure or profit. Any decent choir would love to have recordings of their work that they could just give to the members, or sell at concerts.

It isn't difficult to get a good recording of a good choir in good acoustics. Generally just a couple of well-placed mics will do the job just fine. You'll make the recording, do some playbacks to the choir master, then take the material home for editing.

Any live musical performance will benefit from editing - this applies to even the best musicians in the world. Any classical music CD will have literally hundreds of edits in the original recording.

So typically you might find that the first part of one take was good, while the second part of another take of the same piece was good. If you edited the two good parts together, you would have a perfect performance.

So you perform the edit. Hardly rocket science with a digital audio workstation. You can crossfade if you wish to conceal the join. Now play it back...

Arghh! The edit sounds dreadful! You can clearly hear where the join between the two takes is.

The problem is endemic to a cappella choirs. They start at the correct pitch, but as the piece progresses, the pitch drops. Without an accompaniment to give the singers the correct pitch all the way through, inevitably the performance gets flatter and flatter. It never gets sharper and sharper for reasons science has yet to understand.

If the descent towards flatness always proceeded at the same rate, there wouldn't be a problem. But what will happen is that one take drops in pitch faster than the other. So where you make the join, there is a sudden change in pitch.

A slow change in pitch is inaudible to most people, but a sudden change in pitch stands out in the most unpleasant way possible.

The best solution to this problem is to make the choir master aware of it beforehand, so that he or she knows that each piece will have to be captured in a single take - as many takes as necessary, but the finished recording will be the whole of one take.

A second best solution is to use an accompanying instrument such as a keyboard with an organ-like sound placed behind the mics so that it isn't picked up to any great extent. If the singers can hear it just enough, they will be able to keep their pitch. But the risk is that it may intrude into the recording.

Of course, pitch correction in software is possible, but it often entails a loss of quality. There would have to be a decision on what is the 'least worse' option.

Perhaps in future, choir members will all have in-ear monitors to give them the correct pitch. Until then, making recordings of a cappella singing remains an art.

Like, follow, and comment on this article at Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or the social network of your choice.

Come on the Audio Masterclass Pro Home Studio MiniCourse - 60 great hints and tips to get your home recording studio MOVING

It's FREE!

Get It Now >>

How to choose the best key for your song

What is comb filtering? What does it sound like?

NEW: Audio crossfades come to Final Cut Pro X 10.4.9!

What is the difference between EQ and filters? *With Audio*

What difference will a preamp make to your recording?

Watch our video on linear phase filters and frequency response with the FabFilter Pro Q 2

Read our post on linear phase filters and frequency response with the Fabfilter Pro Q 2

Harmonic distortion with the Soundtoys Decapitator

What's the best height for studio monitors? Answer - Not too low!

What is the Red Book standard? Do I need to use it? Why?

Will floating point change the way we record?

Mixing: What is the 'Pedalboard Exception'?

The difference between mic level and line level

The problem with parallel compression that you didn't know you had. What it sounds like and how to fix it.

Compressing a snare drum to even out the level

What does parallel compression on vocals sound like?

How to automate tracks that have parallel compression

Why mono is better than stereo for recording vocals and dialogue

Clipping and compressing a drum recording to achieve an exciting sound texture

What can we learn about room acoustics from this image?

Can you hear the subtle effect of the knee control of the compressor? (With audio and video demonstrations)

What is the best studio microphone?

What is the Neve sound? (Using the Slate Digital FG-73)

What is the difference between recording, mixing and mastering?